How many times will I write about this, I wonder?
John Donne’s Meditation XVII never grows old, because the hopes, fears, and dreams of mankind never change. Donne tapped into something universal in all men. Donne tapped into a powerful essence in the hearts of all men.
Today, we laid to rest a long-time friend. We mourned her passing with her parents, her brother, her daughters, nieces, and friends. She was a gifted singer and had a penchant for making us all laugh, sometimes with her, sometimes at her, but mostly at ourselves. Being able to laugh at one’s self is one of the things that make life bearable.
The loss of a long-time friend is especially painful in that it reminds us of our own mortality as the youthful idea of “this can’t happen to me” becomes increasingly implausible in our minds as the understanding of its implausibility becomes a bit more inclusive with each passing day. It not only becomes plausible, but more likely, and eventually inevitable. I’d rather think about ice cream.
While this seems morbid, since even ice cream brings with it an increased risk of morbidity, how else are we to think of it with our earthly mind? Do we just shrug our shoulders? Do we, like the people in Frost’s poem simply turn again to our own affairs? If so, then what are our affairs?
The work containing Meditation XVII is called Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and was first published in 1524. It has been re-published continually ever since. Below is the complete text of Meditation XVII. I fear Donne’s copyright has long expired. While he certainly gets credit, his estate will not get any money. But Donne will get my eternal thanks for having written this, which touches so many of us in times of trouble, and in times of quiet contemplation. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Perhaps you had to memorize part of this in high school. If not, then shame on your high school English department, for what seems so dated and useless to a teenager becomes a lifelong contemplation and comfort as we grow older, and far less invincible.
Things haven’t changed much since Donne wrote it; in fact, things are as much like they were then as they are now, and as much like they are now as they ever were before; these are modern times, exactly like the times of Donne. Try to argue with that without resorting to some absolutely false humanity-evolving-higher-plane narrative that says nothing, yields nothing, and is no more demonstrable than the faith I hold in my heart. Faith is a powerful human motivator, and faith, after all, never did have very much to do with anything besides faith. If my faith has cost me something wherein you think there is something I lack, please point it out to me, because my cup overflows, and there is joy amid sadness.
This is a MEDITATION. I could highlight the fat parts for you, but that would leave you less to meditate upon. If you want to read this like you are checking a Twitter post, then recognize that it is a great hazard to have your life and ideas limited to 140 characters at a time, since some things in life are so profound they simply cannot be communicated in that manner; our souls will become as shallow as muddy puddles soon evaporated in a harsh summer sun. If you can make no time for contemplation for something men have contemplated for nearly five hundred years, that has moved their hearts and stirred their souls, then I am fearful for what the world is becoming. It will be what it will be. Meanwhile, I will have meditated on this and contemplated it afresh for the thousandth time. It never fails to inspire me: makes me think less of my own ego and better about those around me, since I am those around me, we are all those around us…we are all in this together.
Please note that this really works well if you read it out loud, slowly, as if you are telling it to someone else. It does not skim well. The dividend is in there, so is the capital gain. You must first make the investment.
Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another’s dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
The only greater words of comfort I can think of are these: Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
And for good measure: For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You could easier lasso the Sun with a plow line and drag it from its galactic orbit while tugging oars in a rowboat than move me from the faith that is anchored like a rock in my soul.
Goodbye, old friend. We will meet again in the light. In the meantime, you have simply gone clear.
Thanks, Anna, for reconfirming to me that all we have is our soul…everything else is an illusion.
©2014 Mississsippi Chris Sharp